Thich Nhat Hanh, influential Zen Buddhist monk, dies aged 95

HANOI, Vietnam — Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk who helped promote the concept of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died. He was 95.

A post on Nhat Hanh’s verified Twitter page, attributed to the International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, confirmed the news. The Post said Nhat Hanh, known to his followers as Thay, died around midnight on Saturday.

“We invite our beloved global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to return to our mindful breathing as we hold thay in our hearts together,” the post reads.

Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926 and was ordained at the age of 16. He distilled the Buddhist teachings on compassion and suffering into an easy-to-understand guide while dedicating a lifetime to work for peace. In 1961 he went to the United States to study and for a time taught comparative religion at Princeton and Columbia Universities.

For most of the rest of his life he lived in exile in Plum Village, a retreat center he founded in southern France.

There, and in lectures and retreats around the world, he introduced Zen Buddhism in its essence as peace through compassionate listening. Quiet and steadfast in his brown robes, he exuded an alert, amused calm, and sometimes shared a stage with the more lively Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.

“The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We must find an inner peace that allows us to become one with those who are suffering and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, that is, ourselves,” Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, “The sun, my heart”.

After surviving a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, he returned to Vietnam in October 2018 and spent his final years at Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery where he had been ordained nearly 80 years earlier.

Nhat Hanh threw himself into anti-war activism after returning home in 1964 as the Vietnam War escalated. There he founded the Order of Inter-Being, which promotes “engaged Buddhism” committed to non-violence, mindfulness, and community service.

In 1966 he met US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. in what was, for both of them, a remarkable encounter. Nhat Hanh told King he was a “bodhisattva,” or enlightened being, for his efforts to promote social justice.

The monk’s efforts to promote reconciliation between the US-backed South and communist North Vietnam so impressed King that a year later he nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his exchange with King, Nhat Hanh explained one of the rare controversies in his long life as a peace advocate – about the burning of some Vietnamese monks and nuns to protest the war.

“I said it wasn’t suicide because in a difficult situation like Vietnam, it’s difficult to make your voice heard. So sometimes we have to burn ourselves alive for our voice to be heard, so if you do that it’s an act of compassion, an act of love and not despair,” he said in an interview with the US talk show Presenter Oprah Winfrey. “Jesus Christ died in the same spirit.”

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who championed Nhat Hanh’s idea of ​​socially engaged Buddhism, said the Zen master “suffered more than most monks and did more for social justice.”

“In Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s he was very exposed to young people and his society was in turmoil, in crisis. He really was in a difficult position, between the devil and the deep blue sea – the communists on one side, the CIA on the other. In such a situation he was very honest – as an activist, as a contemplative monk, as a poet and as a clear writer,” Sivaraksa was quoted as saying.

According to Nhat Hanh, “Buddhism means to be awake—to be mindful of what is going on in one’s body, emotions, mind, and the world. When you are awake, you cannot help but act compassionately to alleviate the suffering you see around you. So Buddhism has to engage in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.”

Both North and South Vietnam prevented Nhat Hanh from returning home after he went abroad to fight the war in 1966, leaving him, he said, “like a bee without a hive”.

He was not allowed back into the country until 2005, when the communist-ruled government welcomed him back on the first of several visits. Nhat Hanh remained based in southern France.

The dramatic homecoming appeared to signal an easing of religious controls. Nhat Hanh’s followers were invited by the Abbot of Bat Nha to take up residence at his mountain monastery, where they stayed for several years until relations with the authorities began to sour over Nhat Hanh’s calls for an end to state control over the religion.

In late 2009 and early 2010, Nhat Hanh’s followers were expelled from the monastery and another temple where they had taken refuge.

Over nearly eight decades, Nhat Hanh’s teachings have been refined into concepts accessible to all.

To weather life’s storms and find happiness, he always advised a mindful “return to the breath,” even when doing routine chores like sweeping and washing dishes.

“I try to live each moment like this, being relaxed, peaceful in the present moment and responding to events with compassion,” he told Winfrey.

Nhat Hanh moved to Thailand in late 2016, then returned to Vietnam in late 2018, where he received traditional medical treatments for the after-effects of his stroke and took “walks” around the temple grounds in his wheelchair, according to Buddhist Online Newsletter LionsRoar.com.

It was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one that suited his love of enjoying the humblest aspects of life. “No mud, no lotus,” says one of his many terse sayings.

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